Where Water Flows, Life Thrives
Ensuring Drought Resilience and Water Security for Farms, People and Ecosystems
By Arty Mangan, Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director
What is your relationship with water? Do you know where your water comes from or how it gets to you?
For the most part, modern developed societies have taken water for granted, viewing it as a mere commodity available on demand. But as the privilege of clean, plentiful, accessible water for the needs and pleasures of life is threatened by prolonged droughts, increased demand and enduring pollution, we are faced with an existential urgency to rethink our relationship with water.
The competing and increasing demands of agriculture, industry, human consumption and biodiversity protection are stressing hydrological systems to the breaking point. Arid regions globally are experiencing historically severe droughts and water scarcity.
In this multimedia series, Bioneers.org will focus on the water scarcity facing arid regions, highlighting innovative designs and far-sighted strategies based on principles drawn from conservation hydrology, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, and keystone species restoration that demonstrate that there are existing strategies and practices we can implement to sustainably steward our most precious resource and ensure water security for all life.
Life’s evolutionary origin began in water.
Water is the primary influencer of all living entities and the environs in which they live. Its manifestations take wildly varied forms from teardrops to tropical storms.
Universal, essential and malleable, water is unique in that it has three distinct expressions: liquid, gas and solid. All three are preeminent forces in the cycles of life. In its liquid form, water is life’s ubiquitous solvent and lubricant.
In its gaseous state, vapor is the intermediary between liquid and solid that balances hot and cold and propels the hydrological cycle.
In its frozen form, at the global glacial scale, ice plays a role in stabilizing sea levels and harmonizing the climate and provides a water bank that slowly relinquishes its assets to lower elevations.
The Earth’s global hydrological cycle enlivens ecosystems and determines the diversity and enumeration of species inhabiting local watersheds.
Only 3% of the global hydrological cycle involves fresh water, and 2/3 of that exists, at least for the moment, in the form of glaciers. Water evaporates into the atmosphere and returns as rain, fog, hail and snow to fill the oceans and rivers, to hydrate landscapes and to fulfill the needs and wants of human and non-human communities; and then, through evaporation and plant transpiration, the cycle continues on-and-on.
An allegorical reference to Cleopatra’s bathwater helps illustrate the unending continuity of the cycle of water, a finite and essential substance: The water in your cup of tea may have been the same water that the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt bathed in some 2000 years ago. The point is, like real estate, they aren’t making any more of it.
“Water is the oil of the 21st century.”
Andrew Liveris, CEO of DOW Chemical Company
Many indigenous people have a non-mechanical view of water and hold it as sacred, understanding that Mní Wičóni — water is life — and not a mere commodity to be bought and sold. The Cochabamba Declaration (Dec. 8, 2000) written by a grassroots coalition of Bolivians who opposed the privatization of their water declared that: “Water is a fundamental human right and a public trust to be guarded by all levels of government; therefore, it should not be commodified, privatized or traded for commercial purposes.”
At the Standing Rock Reservation, Water Protectors and their allies stood courageously and peacefully in frigid temperatures for months in the face of tear gas, police dogs, rubber bullets and fire hoses to protect their water supply from the defilement of a pipeline that would carry climate-destroying fossil fuel through sacred lands.
As demands for water increase among competing entities — agricultural, urban, commercial, recreational, residential and environmental — and water systems are stressed to the breaking point by a legacy of imprudent policies, misguided design and poor stewardship exacerbated by climate change, there is an existential urgency to fundamentally alter how we relate to our most precious resource.
Luna Leopold, the first Chief Hydrologist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the son of the renowned ecologist Aldo Leopold, was a pioneer in rethinking our relationship to water and how it is managed. His understanding of the connection between groundwater and surface water and how water shapes landscapes led him to advocate shifting the perspective from a narrow political and economic focus to include the complexities and science of geology, geography and climate. He understood water as “the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime.”
Most critical resource indeed. The rallying cry of the Water Protectors blocking the Keystone Pipeline, Mní Wičóni , is no mere slogan; it is a scientific fact, a spiritual mandate, an ethical responsibility and a fundamental matter of survival. Luna Leopold’s rigorous geo-science leaned towards Indigenous wisdom when he proclaimed that, “The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”
“To dominate the distribution of water is to dominate all life. In just over one hundred years, we’ve worked to manicure all aspects of the waterscape. We’ve worked to curate and control every drop saved and spent. We’ve also willingly sacrificed aspects of a natural legacy, swaths of living, wild California battered for industrialized civilization.”
Obie Kaufman, The State of Water: California’s Most Precious Resource
No More Cheap Water
“Water flows uphill towards power and money”
Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert
While the demand for water is increasing, the availability of clean fresh water is declining due to pollution from agriculture, other industries, human waste and corroding infrastructure. Fresh water is also being overused, and aquifers depleted and degraded. Climate change-exacerbated droughts in arid regions are expected to last longer and become more severe as time goes on.
The ability of a community to access water for life-sustaining and economic uses can be subject to many pressures, not the least of which are monetary. Expedited by cheap fuel, water infrastructure projects in the American West were built in order to move water long distances far from its sources, disregarding environmental and geographic realities. Those adventurous mega-projects often have had highly damaging long-term ecological consequences and are proving in many cases to be ultimately economically illogical as well.
In an average year, about 75% of California’s precipitation occurs north of Sacramento, while about 80% of the state’s water use is south of that city. Snowmelt water from Mt. Shasta travels 500 miles to farms in Bakersfield, an area that gets a little more than 7 inches of rain per year. Rocky Mountain water via the Colorado River, which once filled a vast and vibrant delta in northern Mexico is now piped to California and 6 other states. The Colorado River Aqueduct carries water hundreds of miles from the river to grow water thirsty crops in the desert and for urban use as well.
California is ground-zero for large scale modern hydrological plumbing projects. The importation and transport of water hundreds of miles, from several ranges in northern California as well as Colorado, has been responsible for the “miracle” of extravagantly supporting 750,000 acres of California agriculture — a $50 billion industry — and the 24 million people of arid Southern California. But the energy, financial and environmental costs have been steep. 20% of California’s statewide electricity is used for pumping, treating and heating water.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem — the largest estuary on the West Coast — has been pressed into service as a key part of this vast plumbing infrastructure. The ecology of the system is collapsing due to pollution, invasive species and sediment, and aquatic creatures in large numbers die as they are routinely sucked into 44,000-horsepower pumps capable of killing millions of fish every few weeks.
There are also man-made ecological disasters in areas like California’s Central Valley, where water has been contaminated by agricultural chemicals, affecting thousands of wells, and 100,000 people. As an interim measure, California is supplying those communities with bottled water.
Some cities in arid coastal climates have resorted to expensive techno-fixes, such as desalination. San Diego spent one billion dollars for a desalination plant that will supply a mere 7–10% of its water.
Desalination is expensive and tremendously energy intensive, posing a fatal threat to marine animals who get sucked into intake valves. The waste product, brine, has a dangerously high concentration of salt and is harmful to the marine environment and to wildlife when it is disposed of. While new innovation and regulatory approaches are improving the technology, it remains a challenging-at-best solution.
The development of California’s complex and intricate water system was seen, at the time, as a miracle of modern technology and engineering. Need water for the new burgeoning city of LA? Engineers could simply bring the water to the people. But at what cost? Water security is fundamental to the sovereignty of people and place. When water flowed to Southern California, the impact on upstream communities was real and immediate. The nature of any ecosystem is largely defined by the local water cycle, but what happens to a people’s homeland when their water is usurped and commodified?
The Theft of Owens Valley Water
The Owens Valley lies between the White and Inyo Mountains near the California/Nevada border and the Eastern Sierras. The valley only gets an average of 4 inches of precipitation annually, but mountain snowmelt runoff supplies it with an abundance of water.
The Owens Valley has been the home of Paiute settlements for at least a thousand years. Like most Indigenous people of North America, they had a sophisticated working knowledge of the landscape and their “food-shed.” They hunted large and small game — most everything from jack rabbits to antelope — moved around often following food sources and gathering wild plants, including rice grass, rye, chia, hyacinth and piñon nuts. The Paiute people also damned creeks and dug ditches to divert water to promote the growth of favored wild food plants and to grow corn.
By the mid 1800s, European settlers came to the Owens Valley to raise cattle. They encroached on Paiute land, drove wild game away, reduced access to the Paiutes’ food-shed, and their grazing cattle degraded native plants that the Paiutes had depended on for their subsistence. Needless to say, conflict arose. During almost a month of extreme rain, snow, freezing temperatures and flooding, some cattle were killed to feed impoverished Paiute families, and Paiutes were shot in retaliation. War broke out between the Paiute, their Shoshone allies and the settlers. Ultimately, the US Army relocated most of the Paiutes hundreds of miles away. Today a small remaining population of the Big Pine Band of Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Indians resides on the Big Pine Reservation.
In the early 1900s, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) started buying land and water rights in the Owens Valley. Marc Reisner wrote in his classic text, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, that water rights were acquired by “chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide and conquer and a strategy of lies to get the water needed. In the end, it milked the valley bone dry, impoverishing it, while the water made a number of prominent Los Angelenos very, very rich.”
The L.A. Aqueduct was completed in 1913 and began carrying water from the Owens River to the city of L.A. By 1928, LADWP owned 90% of the water rights drying up Owens Lake and destroying the farming and ranching economy of the valley. Today, water travels over 400 miles through 12-foot-diameter pipes to Los Angeles, supplying the city with 30% of its water. What was once the site of the third largest lake in California, the Owens Valley is now the number one area for dust pollution in the US as a result of the expropriation of its water and desiccation of the land.
Fortunately, there is a group of conscious Angelenos working to improve the urban environment who have made an adjustment in their work that can help the Owens Valley hold on to a bit more of its water.
The nonprofit organization TreePeople has planted over 3 million trees in L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. In the 1990s, with the help of 3000 volunteers, they planted 7 miles of trees along Martin Luther King Boulevard in southern Los Angeles as a tribute to the Civil Rights leader and to help mitigate floods, droughts, pollution and climate change.
TreePeople’s founder, Andy Lipkis, was made acutely aware of the Owens Valley / L.A. water connection when members of the Paiute tribe contacted him and requested that TreePeople plant native trees that would not require additional water so as not to further impact the already severely diminished Owens Valley water supply. In arid L.A., where about half of the city’s urban water use goes to landscaping, Lipkis began to consider how the permaculture principles of “slow it, spread it, sink it” could be implemented in the urban environment to harness a significant source of water that goes to waste, the rain that falls on roofs, roads and sidewalks and drains to the ocean.
In the documentary film Manzanar Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, Lipkis said, “Our vision is to have large –1000-gallon, 5000-gallon, 10,000-gallon — tanks per house to capture as much water on the property as you can so it doesn’t run off. What runs off into the street is captured in a curb-cut that leads to a green strip or parkway. That water flows in a meandering swale or a creek-shaped structure that is lined and loaded with plants and mulch. All of that water returns to our groundwater supply.
That’s a vital part of our ongoing water supply and allows us to take less water from other regions, so more water can stay in the Owens Valley, especially, and pull it back from desert conditions [created by the L.A. aqueduct].”
The five-part series continues at Bioneers.org